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  • The French Connection: Optics in France and the US

Oct 2010
Gary Boas, Contributing Editor,

It wasn’t so long ago, at the centuries-old Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte in the Pessac-Léognan appellation south of Bordeaux, that workers had to stand at long sorting tables manually removing pieces of leaves, raisins and other unwanted materials before destemming could begin. The process could be laborious, but it was necessary to ensure that only the best berries were used in making the assorted reds and whites produced at this baronial estate in southwest France.

Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte, a centuries-old wine producer south of the city of Bordeaux, uses an advanced optical sorting system to remove leaves and other unwanted materials from its grapes.

More recently, the winery has enlisted the aid of the Delta Vistalys R2 optical sorting system made by Bucher Vaslin of Chalonnes-sur-Loire, some 380 km to the north. This technology, the recipient of a silver medal in the 2008 Vinitech Innovation Awards, detects unwanted materials through image analysis and ejects them with a stream of compressed air (similar systems have been around for some time – e.g., for quality control in frozen vegetables – but sorting grapes is actually far more challenging than these other applications).

The wine makers here use the Vistalys in conjunction with a destemming system they also have come to love. “The combination of these two machines is remarkable,” said technical director Fabien Teitgen. “We manage to obtain nothing but grapes to put into our tanks, with no other undesirables. And we do this all day long with the precision and reproducibility of machines.”

Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte might be viewed as a microcosm of France in the 21st century: drenched in history and steeped in tradition – the noble Bosq family is said to have grown grapes on the property as early as 1365 – yet fully embracing the latest technology. Of course, the French aren’t simply embracing technology; they are tirelessly pushing it forward, contributing in myriad ways to its development. And nowhere is this more evident, perhaps, than in the area of optics and photonics.

A closer look

According to the CNOP, the National Optics Photonics Committee, the photonics sector in France represents more than 1000 companies and 50,000 jobs, a €10 billion ($12.9 billion) turnover, 200 laboratories and 13,000 researchers. Markets for this sector include defense, security, aerospace, automotive, health, telecommunications, instrumentation and industrial processes.

There are seven photonics-related business associations in France, several of which are also “competitiveness clusters,” charged with promoting growth in the area and building collaborative research and development projects both at home and abroad. The primary photonics cluster – serving more than half of the companies in the sector – is Optics Valley, located in the Paris area. The other clusters include Route des Lasers, Elopsys and PopSud Optitec.

Based in the Paris area, Optics Valley is the primary cluster representing the photonics sector in France. It serves 1100 entities in this sector and 40 academic research centers, promoting growth in this area and helping to build collaborative relationships both at home and abroad.

A closer look at Optics Valley reveals something of the makeup of the photonics sector in France, particularly with respect to the size of the member companies. The association serves 1100 entities working in the areas of manufacturing and technology development, and 90 percent of these are small and medium-size enterprises. More than half of the 43,000 optics employees in the optics community in the Paris region work in small and medium-size companies.

The organization also serves 40 centers of higher education as well as larger research facilities such as the SOLEIL synchrotron. Here, roughly 11,000 researchers work in 240 laboratories.

Optics Valley professes a threefold mission: to unite all of the players in the optics, electronics and software arenas; to support the growth of the many companies, especially small and medium-size enterprises; and to increase the visibility of some of the fastest-growing sectors, thus contributing to the economic development of the Paris region.

Because of the wide range of markets and technologies in the area, the association has chosen to focus on particular fields of interest: bio IT, the application of optics, electronics and software technologies to the life sciences; wireless, encompassing the dissemination of wireless communications technologies as well as optics telecom technologies; instrumentation; and sustainable development. The organization brings its experience and resources to bear with each of these, promoting a network of actors while also encouraging and helping to build a breadth of collaborations.

This includes collaborations with companies and research institutions abroad. A number of French companies participated in the French-American Meeting for Photonics Innovation during the Photonics West trade show held in January in San Francisco. Organized by Ubifrance – the French trade mission – and the French Economy, Industry and Labor Ministry’s Department for Competitiveness, Industry and Services, the meeting gave the companies a forum in which to introduce their R&D projects and expectations with respect to their technological partnerships.

Last January, the French trade mission helped organize a French-American Meeting for Photonics Innovation during the Photonics West trade show. The major clusters and a number of companies working in the sector presented. The trade mission is looking forward to Photonics West 2011, where it hopes to encourage further collaborations between the French and American optics communities.

At various presentations, the companies collectively made a compelling case for collaboration. I listened as Biviers-based Alpao discussed its deformable mirrors, extremely sensitive wavefront sensors and complete adaptive optics loops; as Amplitude Systemes of Pessac talked about its crystal- and fiber-based lasers; and as Eolite Systems, also of Pessac, outlined the benefits of its high-power pulsed fiber lasers for a range of fine-technology micromachining applications.

In a recent phone conversation, Farid El Baraka, a trade adviser with UbiFrance, discussed the clusters’ and the trade mission’s many efforts to forge connections between the optics communities in France and the US. Besides the 2010 French-American Meeting for Photonics Innovation, the groups organized a business trip of sorts only the month before, in which three of the clusters and seven or eight French companies working in the photonics sector spent a week in Boston meeting with researchers from Harvard University and MIT, for instance.

Both events proved fruitful, and Ubifrance is now looking toward Photonics West 2011.

El Baraka also talked about relationships between French and American academic institutions. He sees quite a bit of interaction between universities in the two countries, he said. For example, the University of Bordeaux has a successful, ongoing agreement with the University of Central Florida in Orlando. This relationship facilitates a range of collaborations in R&D and, for the next generation of researchers and executives working in the field, includes joint academic and student exchange programs.

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